Restaurants: A Pathway to the American Dream

05/19/2015 02:40 pm ET | Updated May 17, 2016

If you only read the headlines about the restaurant industry these days, you'd be forgiven for not understanding all that this important American industry does to provide opportunities to 14 million Americans. Industry detractors have worked hard in an organized fashion to spread misinformation about wages and the treatment of workers for their own means.

If you dig a little deeper, you'll find hundreds of thousands of stories of hardworking Americans who have achieved success working in restaurants - many from right here in Illinois. Chefs like Mark Steuer from La Sirena Cladestina and Andrew Zimmerman of Sepia have something in common - they have built successful businesses with the opportunities they discovered in restaurants.

These are the stories you'll hear beginning this weekend as more than 65,000 restaurant and foodservice professionals gather in Chicago for our annual National Restaurant Association Restaurant, Hotel-Motel Show. We are here, among other reasons, to celebrate our industry of opportunity.

We'll showcase stories like Marla Topliff's. Marla is from Elgin, Illinois, and joined the restaurant industry at age 49 after raising her children. With years of training and hard work, she worked her way to her current role of President at Rosati's Pizza. Marla has said that the restaurant welcomed her with open arms and offered her the opportunity to grow and start a new career path not found in any other industry.

Restaurants are a driving force in the Illinois economy - more than 26,000 locations across the state generate nearly $23 billion in sales. Most importantly, these restaurants employ 529,200 Illinoisans. People like Rick Bayless and Jeff Mauro whose passion for food has transcended their home kitchens and found its way into the hearts (and stomachs) of many Americans.

Because of stories like these in Illinois and across the country, we know that a restaurant can be a way to achieve one's American dream. Restaurants are a place to grow and build on your skills. In fact, 90 percent of restaurant managers started as hourly-paid employees - working their way up to management. This isn't limited to staying in the restaurant industry. A restaurant job is a great training ground for all careers. Nearly one in three had their first job in a restaurant, learning critical skills that will help them springboard into a career in the industry or outside of it.

Restaurants are also pillars of our communities- giving back and giving citizens a location to gather, meet up and celebrate. And that's what we're doing here in Chicago--celebrating restaurants and ensuring that they can remain an industry of opportunity.

While we have much to celebrate, there's no doubt that we also have work to do to ensure that the restaurant industry remains a vibrant and vital pathway to achieve the American Dream. How we continue to foster the industry as one of opportunity for all? How can we economically empower foodservice industry professionals in an increasingly challenging environment? We'll explore thought leadership, advances in social media, and how to balance family and career in order to live a more authentic life - all qualities that will contribute to building the engaged workforce needed to meet the industry's future growth.

The restaurant industry is the nation's second largest private sector employer - the place where many Americans find their start in the workforce and the economic engine of many communities. Now, as we look to the future, it is our responsibility to make sure that the restaurant industry continues to be a place of opportunity for millions of people across this country.